In Samuel D. Hunter’s new play The Whale, Shuler Hensley plays Charlie, an obese English teacher apologetically eating himself to death. That summary gives the barest hint of the complex, ambivalent tang of the work – which is at once absurd, amusing, manipulative, preposterous and deeply moving.
Charlie’s urge to eat is the calculated, deliberate expression of overwhelming grief. Guilt drove his Mormon lover Alan, who 15 years ago Charlie left his wife and young child for, to starve himself to death. Religious fast is now being answered with agnostic gluttony. Tended by Alan’s sister, a nurse, Liz (Cassie Beck), the plays narrates Charlie’s last days over a tightly plotted hour and fifty minutes.
The play — and, physically, the stage — is dominated by Charlie’s elephantine presence. Wearing an enormous body suit, Hensley sweats, wheezes, chokes and weeps as his past is revealed (though far from explained) through visits from a Mormon (Cory Michael Smith), his estranged daughter (Reyna De Courcy), and his ex-wife (Tasha Lawrence).
The play’s structure is deeply schematic, with the characters surrounding Charlie all too conveniently providing the main protagonist with all kinds of parallels, mirrors, and doubles. At times the play veers towards melodramatic cliché; present and correct are the fag hag nurse, the hard-drinking single mother, and the angry wayward daughter. The sheer emotional conviction of the acting – Beck and Michael Smith, as well as Hensley, are absolutely outstanding – prevents this from mattering as much as it perhaps should. Manipulative it might be, but The Whale is rarely less than compelling.
It is also a production that is as taut as the main character is flabby. As well as straightforwardly working as a domestic drama, the tightly controlled nature of the play at times turns the supporting characters into something more akin to ciphers of Charlie’s subconscious. This is more than another way of saying that the supporting characters are not especially convincing. Moonlight and the burning orange of a low winter sun are aped by the lighting to expressively punctuate the drama. Sounds approximating to either a sea lapping at a shore or bubbles rising to the surface in a fish tank accompany changes of scene. A Jungian undertow similar to the type famously channelled by J.B. Priestley seems to be at work here. The unhappy paradoxes of Charlie’s predicament – amassing a small fortune by killing himself, dedicating himself to his daughter while almost entirely alienating her – resonate beyond the Idaho setting.
It’s not clear whether a lack of self-knowledge has doomed Charlie or shielded him, ,fortified him or undermined him. But you’re left with the powerful impression of a grotesquely overweight man committing suicide by meatball sub who, nevertheless, on occasion appears to have reached an apex of self-assurance more usually associated with Buddha.
Hunter’s script also self-consciously extracts the maximum metaphorical mileage out of Charlie’s role as an online tutor. References to Whitman and Scott Fitzgerald are both heavy-handed and unconvincing. But the juxtaposition of the students’ essays, the comments of his tutees in their online discussion forums, Charlie’s tender wisdom, and his slow suicide, are both touching and funny while also working to moderate the play’s emotional key.
Although Charlie explains that a fold of fat on his back has gone brown, that he is covered in ulcers and sores, and that he has fungus growing on his stomach, by the end of the play it is difficult not to understand his physical condition in more spiritual terms. Indeed, for Charlie, mining the meaning of an essay written by his daughter on Herman Melville becomes the Moby Dick to his Ahab. Extracts from the essay are repeatedly read aloud and used to connect key moments in the play. This may be a McGuffin, a jet-black joke, or an attempt at something generally transcendental, because it’s provocatively unclear what the unknowable and uncommunicable sadness gently and unpretentiously expressed in his young daughter’s essay means to Charlie. The essay simply works like a chant with the power to reset his emotional clock to zero. Such a plot device risks becoming laboured, but it just about works, underlining that while the play, like the stage, is dominated by Charlie’s elephantine presence, the nature of that presence is a peculiarly ethereal one in the same way that the poster for the play is aptly dominated by his shadow.